A Taste of Turkey: How Chef Ahu’s Artistry Shaped Istanbul Hawai‘i

(Partner Content) From designing an entire restaurant to crafting an original cocktail menu, this creative powerhouse can do it all.


Istanbul Sign

Photo: Marisa Heung


She may be a chef and restaurateur by trade, but it’s more accurate to say that Chef Ahu is, first and foremost, an artist. In a previous life, the Istanbul Hawai‘i owner/executive chef studied animation, visual effects and multimedia. In Istanbul’s early days as a new farmers market vendor, she took note of its growing fanbase and promptly built a website. Once it was launched, “demand almost doubled,” she says. Its multi-hued design is an extension of Istanbul’s bright logo, designed by the chef herself, a visual nod to the restaurateur’s vibrant home country.


Istanbul Open Kitchen

Photo: Marisa Heung


After the rental lease signed, keys were handed over and it came time to transform the shell of a retail space into something special, Chef Ahu’s artistry became the backbone of Istanbul’s look and feel. The restaurant is both chic and rustic at the same time, as if you’re visiting the airy home of a stylish Mediterranean friend. Bouquets of flowers and leaves hang over the open-air kitchen. “It was my mom, Chef Nili’s, idea to have an open kitchen,” says Chef Ahu, who designed the entire restaurant, from floor to ceiling down to the smallest metal fixture. Her mom, Chef Nili, wanted guests to feel as if they were guests in a home, watching them cook up something magical. Nearly everything you see—and nearly everything you don’t see, as well—was built by Chef Ahu, her father and her husband. Having full ownership over the space from square one was important. After all, when you want something done right, you do it yourself.


The same holds true for the food. “What is very special about Istanbul is that nearly everything—about 95%—is made in-house,” says Chef Ahu. Not only that, but most of the ingredients are either locally sourced or imported from Turkey or the Mediterranean. That includes 40-or-so spices used in Istanbul’s dishes, which play a star role in the restaurant’s complex and authentically Turkish flavor profiles.


Istanbul Ahu Nili Web

Ahu and her mother, Nili, executive chefs of the women-and-immigrant-owned Istanbul Hawai‘i. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


Istanbul’s huge menu might be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the cuisine, but you really can’t go wrong with any dish. But first, Chef Ahu says, order a cocktail. She developed each recipe herself, so each one is unique to the restaurant. Like her dishes, these cocktails feature Turkish flavors and aromas using Mediterranean and local ingredients. Combinations—like Turkish chile and mango, Mediterranean roses and Lā‘ie vanilla bean, cardamom and liliko‘i—are as delightful as they are surprising, and certainly not an experience to miss out on.


Chef Ahu says that food is powerful. During a time when she could not visit home, her mother’s Turkish cooking was the only thing that soothed the heartache: “Food is like a time machine. The tastes, smells, everything brought me back to Turkey.” For the mother-daughter team now, it’s a way of bringing their home country to Hawai‘i, connecting two places on opposite ends of the world through flavor.


For more information on Istanbul Hawai‘i, visit istanbulhawaii.com.